Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A wrong turn down the road to merit pay

Now that the U.S. Department of Education has announced that eight Louisiana school districts will split $36.5 million to experiment with merit pay for teachers, does that mean it's already too late to talk about whether or not merit pay really makes a difference in the classroom?

Hopefully, not. Because the data, while not yet conclusive, tends to show that there is little if any connection between performance-based pay and student achievement.

As Sarah Sparks writes here, the Department of Education is spending money before there is evidence that it is well spent. Says Sparks, "More than ever, the department needs a large, rigorous, comprehensive evaluation to dig into the details of whether and how performance-pay programs work."

Within a week of the Department's announcement of the grants, she notes, two different studies in Chicago and Nashville "have found few benefits for student achievement in merit-pay programs."

Despite a lack of evidence that these incentives accomplish their goal, the U.S. Department, as well as state and local education agencies around the country, are bound and determined to ram them down the throats of classroom teachers.


Education curmudgeon Diane Ravitch hits on an answer to that question in this article.

The problem is that merit pay has been touted loudly and long, albeit without evidence, by conservative advocates. After some 30 years, it is taken as an article of faith that it must work.

Ravitch says that the almost religious belief in merit pay is based on a business model: "They believe in competition, and they believe that financial rewards can be used to incentivize better performance, so it seems natural for them to conclude that merit pay or performance pay would incentivize teachers to produce better results."

While that may seem a rational conclusion, it is not empirical - the data just don't back it up.

So the conservatives rely on another article of faith, based on their generally low opinion of people in general. As Savitch puts it,

(T)hey assume that most people—in this case, teachers—are lazy and need a
promise of dollars to be incentivized to get higher scores for their students.
It never seems to occur to them that many people are doing their best (think
people who play sports, always striving to do their best without any expectation
of payment) and continue to do so because of intrinsic rewards or because of an
innate desire to serve others. Teachers should certainly be well compensated,
but not many enter the classroom with money as their primary motivation.

Her conclusion? "Ideology trumps evidence. The enduring puzzle is why the Obama administration clings so fiercely to the GOP philosophy of incentives and sanctions as the levers for change, despite lack of evidence for their efficacy."

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